Syria’s War on Screen: An Exchange

Ruins of war in Syria

Omar Haj Kadour/AFP via Getty Images

Ruined buildings in the village of Ma’arrat al-Nu’man after a weekslong regime offensive against rebel-held areas in Syria’s Idlib province, February 12, 2020

In response to:

And the Oscar Goes to… A Simplified Story of Syria’s Civil War,” NYR Daily, February 6, 2020.

To the Editor:

Since December 1, when the Syrian regime and Russia resumed their assault on Idlib, 832,000 civilians have been displaced, most of them children. Two hundred and eighty-six civilians were killed in the month of January alone. The last bastions of the revolution, Saraqeb, Kafranbl, and Ma’arrat al-Nu’man, have fallen. This is the biggest displacement of the war yet—and the majority of those fleeing were already refugees, once, twice, even six times over.

Still convulsed from the so-called refugee crisis of 2015, the West worries about migration, but less so about its causes. Since Syrians are being hunted and chased within the cauldron of Idlib, this mass displacement has elicited a collective shrug. Syria wasn’t even mentioned at the last G–7 summit; it hasn’t featured at all in the Democratic primaries. The killing of Qassem Soleimani provoked more outrage than the catastrophe of Syria’s millions.

Psychologists posit that scale of a crisis overwhelms the human capacity for empathy; people become mere numbers. That’s why individual stories matter: one illustrative story can help restore humanity to a broader, hence unimaginable, statistic. This is the achievement of For Sama and The Cave, two extraordinary films that tell a profoundly human story of courage, commitment, sacrifice, defeat, and perseverance—stories that humanize the experience of many. The films’ artistic merits are considerable, but the impossible circumstances of their production make them even more remarkable. Both films were nominated for an Oscar.

It was surprising then to find a bizarre attack on the films on the Daily, faulting them for being simultaneously too crude and too clever. According to the article’s author, they are subjective contrivances of partisans who can’t bear the “full truth,” cover up for Islamist extremists, and ignore “the other side” (for example, “so many regime soldiers” killed in the war). They focus on strong-willed independent women, thereby catering—“knowingly or not”—to “some of Hollywood’s favored formulae.” Because of this, he fears, this simplistic narrative of a “virtuous rebel enclave” may come to be seen as a “broader parable about the war’s political meaning.”

This is nonsense. The films never pretend to be the “full truth” about anything. They offer a fly-on-the-wall view of a handful of individuals providing healthcare under siege in an environment where medical facilities and professionals have been systematically targeted. These dangers are not partisan fables. Of the five hundred and eighty-eight attacks on health facilities that Physicians for Human Rights has corroborated, 91 percent were carried out by the regime and its allies; the same parties were also responsible for the deaths of over 90 percent of the medical professionals killed in the war. The UN has found “a pattern of attacks” by regime forces that suggests a “deliberate and systematic targeting of hospitals and other medical facilities.” Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have both condemned Russia and the regime for targeting hospitals “as a strategy of war.” Médicins Sans Frontières has reported systematic attacks on the hospitals it supports. A New York Times investigation has confirmed that Russia deliberately and systematically targets hospitals.

Such stats are not exceptional: they reflect the broader balance of human rights violations—from civilian deaths, starvation sieges, forced expulsion, chemical attacks, torture, to sexual violence. Indeed, the regime has practiced detention and mass execution on such a scale that the UN Commission of Inquiry has accused it of the “crimes against humanity of extermination.” The experience of the heroic doctors recorded in the films is typical. It is indeed a “broader parable about the war’s political meaning”: this is not a “civil war,” it is a war on civilians.

Bugbears cannot obscure this reality. The author faults the filmmakers for only briefly condemning the jihadis. Their condemnation is, in fact, proportionate to their experience: the hospitals were being bombed by regime forces, not jihadis. He throws in a mention to one hospital in Aleppo being used by al-Nusra (al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate) as a prison, implying a motive for the regime’s targeting of healthcare. But the regime also attacked hospitals in Saraqeb, Kafranbl, and Ma’arat ul Nu’man, cities that had successfully confronted and expelled al-Qaeda. And in Aleppo, according to the UN Commission of Inquiry, only 2.5 percent of the city’s 6,000–8,000 defenders were affiliated with al-Nusra. Doctors in Aleppo and Douma had more pressing concerns than providing cover for extremists. (Aleppo had just thirty doctors for a population of 300,000; for a population of 400,000, Eastern Ghouta had twelve!)


The author’s main gripe appears to be that the films defy stereotypes constructed by foreign correspondents who parachute in every once in a while, to be shepherded around by regime minders, producing accounts that obsess about jihadis and erase civilians and civil society. He uses cynicism as a scythe to effect a moral leveling, obscuring the stark imbalance in means and violations, declaring the regime no worse than its opponents. Reflecting on his own experience after the Holocaust, the Italian writer Primo Levi called such false equivalence “a moral disease or an aesthetic affectation or a sinister sign of complicity.” He added: “above all it is a precious service rendered to the negators or truth”—knowingly or not.

For Sama and The Cave are triumphs of craft, courage, and compassion. They are human documents, not just political documents. They achieve what journalism was intended to before it was hijacked by cynics who make a virtue of “balance” instead of accuracy, “neutrality” instead of fairness: they comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. 

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad
Lecturer in Digital Journalism
University of Stirling, Scotland


Robert F. Worth replies:

The facts Idrees Ahmad cites about Russian and Syrian regime war crimes are not in dispute, and the two documentaries in question bear painful witness to them. Unfortunately, he seems to have absorbed his ideas about the Syrian opposition from the wishful portrait it has often painted of itself in foreign capitals. As anyone who has spent time in Syria knows, the armed opposition has been dominated for years by hardline Islamists, including some who operate under the banner of the Free Syrian Army. The low figure Ahmad cites for Nusra-affiliated fighters in East Aleppo refers to only one of the Islamist groups operating there at the time.

I take no pleasure in these observations; I know people who have died under Assad’s bombs. I have many friends among the brave civilians who protested the regime, including dissidents I got to know in Syria while reporting there during the years before the 2011 uprising. One of them spent the past several years in Idlib province, where he protested both the jihadists and the regime; in late 2019, after surviving two assassination attempts by jihadists, he fled the country, like so many others. Yet I also know Syrians who have fought for the regime despite knowing all about its savagery, because they fear the alternative. To recognize these facts is not to practice “false equivalence.” And to deny that this is a civil war—as Ahmad does, echoing opposition propaganda—is to trade Syria’s complex reality for a partisan caricature.

It is true, as Ahmad notes, that For Sama and The Cave are framed as portraits of hospitals under regime attack, not as broader portrayals of the war. But the filmmakers and their central characters could not have avoided coming into contact with rebel fighters; they would certainly have been aware of the abuses those fighters carried out and of the dungeons they operated. There are street scenes in both films, and plenty of footage of regime attacks, but no trace of the defenders. The filmmakers, in other words, made a deliberate choice to screen out certain inconvenient facts about their own daily lives and the cause they stood for. (Other films made by opposition activists have confronted the role of the jihadists, including The War Show, by Andreas Dalsgaard and Obaidah Zytoon.) Choices like this have consequences. They help to shape the views of people outside of Syria, including, apparently, Ahmad, who writes from the safe remove of a professorship in digital journalism in Scotland.

These films, in other words, have a tacit political agenda that may not be visible to a foreign audience. To acknowledge that is not to diminish the heroism of figures like Dr. Amani Ballour and Dr. Hamza al-Kateab. Syria’s tragedy is a vast one. Facing it requires us all, Syrians and outsiders alike, to come to grips with uncomfortable truths.


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